EARLY RESULTS from a study in New Haven, Conn., [have] provided the latest evidence that needle exchange programs can help combat both AIDS and drug abuse.
The New Haven program provided sterile needles over seven and a half months to more than 700 addicts who got a new needle every time they returned a used one.
The free needles were less likely to become contaminated than those used on the street or in drug shooting galleries. And the rate of contamination in the distributed needles fell over time. A mathematical model estimated that the program was cutting new AIDS infections among participants by a third.
Equally important, the program provided counseling to addicts on drug abuse, AIDS and other health issues. One in four has asked for help and more than 100 have already been placed in treatment programs.
These encouraging results reinforce a smattering of studies in Europe, Australia and North America. They found little evidence that needle programs entice people to shoot drugs; participants are almost always long-term abusers, not new recruits. A Swedish program that has followed more than 500 addicts for several years has yet to find a single new AIDS infection among them.
The data support easing laws against distributing clean needles. But to do that alone misses the larger point.
Addicts cannot long be saved from either AIDS or addiction for the cost of a few needles. The honest price of a needle exchange program has to be a commitment to provide treatment for all addicts who want it.